This blog is a companion to the interview with Mike Sayre and Dr. Dale Meyerrose on VoiceAmerica “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations” on February 7, 2017, focusing on the complex reality of leading organizational change.
At C-Level #8 is the eighth blog of an eight-part series following a first time CEO’s educational journey in a very challenging business environment, and exploring global concepts in leadership theory and practice.
At the end of each blog are reflection questions for readers to consider as they navigate their own leadership journey.
This guest post by Mike Sayre — experienced software, e-commerce and manufacturing services CEO, COO, CFO and Board Director—is based on his first-hand experiences as a fledging CEO. Its intent is to provide additional insight or ideas to those in, close to, aspiring to, or trying to understand the top leadership role in any organization.
Prior to my first time role as CEO, I had input into company strategy from other functional leadership roles, but it was now my responsibility to lead strategy development with our team and our board, and then lead its execution as well. I found this easily to be one of the most complex and difficult responsibilities of being a CEO, because it includes figuring it out, getting buy-in, leading its execution, keeping buy-in, and continually evaluating whether it’s going to work or not – and, if not, jumping back to the figuring it out stage.
When I accepted my first CEO job, we had just grown revenue about 4x over a three to four year period while I was the CFO. However, profitability growth had been eluding us. Deep analysis (figuring it out) proved that we had won some large programs on pricing that we could just not make profitable. The idea was that if we could just get in the door and prove ourselves we could get higher value and more profitable work. Ever hear that before? We could not execute fast enough on getting that higher margin business when the economy started sliding downward.
Our short term strategy was either to make unprofitable business profitable or shed it (by raising prices). We would also need to make sure our cost structure was optimized with the right size and composition of workforce for the business we were able to keep, ensuring key talent stayed to help us grow the company again for our longer term strategy. Our longer term strategy was to leverage our extensive engineering and manufacturing capabilities to move into building more complex and higher margin products that were undeniably more valuable to our customers than the lower margin commodity work we were currently doing for them. This long term strategy made it much less desirable for them to switch to another supplier. Overall, we were looking at less revenue for some period of time, but more profitability.
Early in execution it all seemed to be working: less revenue, higher margins and some success in moving into a new market for us. It was difficult work saying “no” to big customers, having to right-size the business by laying off good people and keeping everyone else on board with the longer term strategy in mind, and moving into a new market – the latter of which can take quite some time. Following the Golden Rule and constantly communicating to all of our stakeholders was paramount to keeping everyone on board.
So, here is a substantial lesson I learned through all this that I would like to share with you. I am sure you’ve heard it before, but I assure you it is so true, and I hope you will take it to heart:
When you change strategies, introduce new products, try to make any kind of significant change, you have a very small window of opportunity to make it work, and you almost never know how small that window really is – so time is absolutely of the essence. You do not have the time you think you have!
So, as it was, with the economy accelerating in its deep dive, we were running out of time. The orders for the commodity-type manufacturing services we provided were quickly dwindling and we were laying off people almost every quarter to “right-size” the company for that declining part of the business. Our customers kept lowering their quarterly forecasts. They could not tell us, and we could not see, when their forecast reductions would subside and their higher demand would return. We were no longer profitable.
After a couple of rounds of layoffs and continued uncertainty, I decided we needed to abandon our move to more highly engineered, valued and margin products, get the company to a sustainable profit level in its other core business, and wait it out for likely two to three years.
So we engineered a layoff that would do just that, and I included myself in it. I knew this plan would quickly put the company back in a profitable position. I also knew the founder and COO could maintain that level of profitability until the economy came back. The founder had run the business for about 10 years before I joined the company. With that level of profitability, the company could either invest for more growth in better economic times, or sell because of its strategic niche business and profitable operations. And that is what happened. Over the next two years, the company maintained its profitability as planned and was sold to a global player in the industry that needed the company’s capabilities, some of its key accounts, and its well run operations and profitable business.
Hindsight being 20/20, and to my earlier point about not knowing how small that window of opportunity will be, I wish we could’ve moved faster on the long term strategic plan. We had the talent and capabilities in place, and we were making good progress. We just ran out of time and that responsibility was mine.
I’ll end this At C-Level series with the first tenet of Jim Collin’s Good to Great that I listed in the first installment, At C-Level #1:
- Success is not about the leader as a person, but about the success of the company.
The company was very successful during my time there, especially given all of the challenges we had to deal with. And based on the company’s success, built upon many other successes contributed by many other people purposefully led by our leadership team, even with my own initiated exit from the company, I count my first CEO role as a success.
You may be saying, “My situation is different and there is no way I would ever leave my CEO job, or any other C-Level job for that matter!” So what if it was not your choice?
- Do you have a succession plan in place? If unfortunate circumstances caused you to leave your leadership position, how would the leadership legacy you leave behind continue to serve all of your stakeholders – your shareholders/owners, employees, customers, suppliers and/or communities in which you live?
- Do you currently have key strategic initiatives going? Do you have metrics in place to know when they are successful? How much time do you think you have to complete your implementation of these initiatives? Could an economic downturn, loss of a customer or anything else significantly derail your initiatives? I’ll ask again: How much time do you think you really have to complete your initiatives? Is there anything you could speed up, do simultaneously, or put more resources on to move those initiatives ahead more quickly?
If your company is facing significant strategic, leadership, succession planning, financial and/or operational challenges, please contact Metcalf & Associates or me to assist in developing and executing your way forward through those challenges and beyond with our executive advisory and leadership development services.
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To become a more innovative leader, please consider our online leader development program. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching to our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.
About the Author
Mike Sayre, executive advisor and organizational transformation practice lead, has been a successful CEO, COO, CFO and board director for multiple organizations in technology (cybersecurity, ecommerce payments processing and engineered computer products) and manufacturing (electronics and steel products). He shares his expertise with client boards and C-Level leaders, and advises, designs, plans, and oversees the implementation of successful strategies for turnarounds, growth, profitability and sustainability.
Mike brings 25+ years of organizational and business leadership and hands-on implementation experience to his clients. His teams have achieved significant increases in growth, profitability and valuation, as well as shareholder, customer, supplier and employee engagement and satisfaction.